Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Stretching out the harvest, bedding in the prairie

As fall dangles its chilly tentacles across the city, we're struggling to balance our optimism against our pragmatism.

Our optimism encourages us to eke out the most from the crops we have coddled all summer. Surely there's enough sun left for some of those green tomatoes to turn red/orange/yellow/purple.

Our pragmatism senses the first frosts approaching, and tells us that if we want to get our cover crop solidly established, we'll need to get beds cleared and re-sown pronto.

Saturday October 3rd gave us a chance to engage this dramatic tension. Though the forecast was for clouds and drizzle, we were lucky to get mostly calm and sun. Encouraged by this, we decided to give our prolific bean plantings a while longer to show their true strength. However, most of the cucurbits are looking pretty sad, and we pulled up the pumpkins and cucumbers, and re-seeded those beds with our cover crop mix.

This week was almost the last for pumpkins, and acorn and butternut squash:

One pumpkin eluded the hunt by hiding at waist height in a tomato plant:

We're also running into the legacy of various hurried planting decisions throughout the year. Several beds now have a weird mix of crops, and we're faced with pulling both the exhausted plants and the still-thriving ones, or leaving our cover crop with less time to get established.

Harvests are definitely winding down, and although peppers are still producing well, the tomatoes are starting to seem a little spent. We still have some potatoes and a whole bed of sweet potatoes in reserve, so there may yet be another bumper week.

Our radishes couldn't care less that it's fall:

With food production sorted for the week, around mid-morning we turned to some long-planned work to liven up the public garden that faces onto Kenmore Ave. Lots of work has been put into this area over the years, and while the paths, benches, trees and bulbs have stood up quite well, shrubs and flowering plants haven't survived as easily. The area is quite a challenge: it gets a lot of foot and dog traffic, being right next to the pavement, and when there's work to be done on the vegetable crops it's easy for us to overlook maintaining this little plot.

One thing we are going to try is to plant more prairie native plants in this area. Once they're established, they should be self-maintaining -- after all they're what grew here before the city lots were drawn up. Also, having more prairie plants around will help us educate ourselves and visitors about native NE Illinois ecosystems. We started a few prairie plants earlier in the year, and on Saturday we supplemented these with some 3" starter pots from Prairie Nursery in Westfield, WI.

Our new native plantings were:

  • Baptisia lactea (white false indigo)
  • Liatris aspera (rough blazingstar)
  • Erygium yuccifolium (rattlesnake master)
  • Sorghastrum nutans (indiangrass)
  • 2 Hystrix patula (bottlebrush grass)
  • Andropogon gerardi (big bluestem grass)
  • Aster laevis (smooth aster)
  • Asclepias incarnata (red milkweed)
  • 2 Geum triflorum (prairie smoke)
Along with these new arrivals from central Wisconsin, we were glad to recieve black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia) and Sedums from a generous neighbor just across the street, and a wide assortment of mostly unnamed specimens from the city's Great Perennial Divide.

Thanks to the great crew of enthusiastic volunteers who helped give all these plants new homes and, most importantly, built an obstacle course of poultry fencing to keep out local dogs and kids while the plants settle in.